A bit more about Strawson’s materialism

In thinking about it further, I realized my electric blanket metaphor for Strawson’s materialism is misleading. As an analogy, it is better suited for so-called property dualists, who believe that some matter can have properties which are in an important sense immaterial (like “feeling joy” or “hearing C#”). Strawson, in contrast, wants to enlarge or extend our concept of materiality or physicality so as to include mental phenomena. The two views, property dualism and Strawson’s “real materialism,” end up functionally equivalent, but there is an important difference when it comes to the treatment each view gives to present physics.

Property dualists arrive at their view because, for the life of them, they cannot see how dead, inert, passive matter could ever itself constitute our wide and varied world of consciousness. So they bring in “alien” properties, which somehow attach themselves or supervene on chunks of matter. Strawson thinks, however, that this view is based on a hopelessly wrong view of matter. Matter is not as Descartes conceived it to be. It is instead — and here I’ll try to sound all quantummy — spheres of probabilities and potentialities, collapsing into actual fields and forces upon instantaneous, holistic interactions. In short, matter is far more lively and similar to the quicksilvery nature of consciousness than philosophers often pretend. With a more accurate understanding of physics, it is less clearly outrageous to think that consciousness may itself be a property of the physical world.

Here’s an analogy. Suppose physicists didn’t have any laws or theory or understanding of gravitation. Of course they could see that their existing theory was very incomplete — lots of phenomena they really could not even begin to explain. Some of them, let’s say, insisted that the unexplained phenomena would eventually be explained through other known theories and forces. Others insisted that there must be some alien, somewhat magical force. (These represent reductive materialists and dualists, respectively.) Then someone comes along (initials GS) and says: why not expand physics so as to include this additional force? It is different from the other froces and theories we know about, but not so different as to compromise the integrity of our scientific understanding of the world.

Moreover, GS would note, it’s not as if we have any reason for thinking existent physics is complete. No one yet has happily married up the quantum world with the relativistic world, and the attempts to do so (string theory) look far loonier than anything any philosopher has proposed. So why not simply accept consciousness and its contents as further physical phenomena, as basic to physics as gravitational phenomena, with no need for immaterial entities or reductive explanations?

I still haven’t quite grasped what this really means. GS himself (and this is charming) admits that it is initially hard to think of experience in this way. You should sit and listen to music, and say to yourself repeatedly that your experience is just part of the overall physical process (of sound waves, brain states, etc.). You should watch children learn and play, and think of their internal goings-on as no different in kind from what their bodies are doing. So it takes meditation and reconceptualization.

This exactly is the kind of question I like to hear: why exactly do we think mental events are different in kind from physical events? What exactly is our understanding of physical events, and what is it in that understanding that keeps gravity in but color experiences out?

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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1 Response to A bit more about Strawson’s materialism

  1. Richard Taylor long ago noted (I can never find the quotation) that the hard problem (to put it anachronistically) isn’t how something merely physical can be conscious; the hard problem is how anything at all can be conscious. Saying, then, that there must be something else (call it an “alien property,” call it a heretofore unappreciated, quicksilvery aspect of matter) that explains consciousness doesn’t really seem to thicken the philosophical plot.


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